When Will Conventional Public Schools Be as Accountable as Charters?

Walter French Academy
Walter French Academy in Lansing is the 15th charter school in Michigan since 1994 to be closed by its authorizer for poor performance.

Envision a local public school that misappropriates federal grant monies, posts abysmal student test scores and carries an operating deficit on its books. After eight years of such poor performance, the state finally shuts it down. A bad school goes out of business.

No such thing, you say? Think again.

Accountability to this extent never happens in conventional public schools, in which problems like the above often constitute business as usual. Not so for Walter French Academy in Lansing. On June 30, it became the 15th charter school in Michigan since 1994 to be closed by its authorizer--and rightly so.

Charter schools were created with the idea that “performance will be rewarded and poor performance will be sanctioned.”

In a May 27 letter to the Academy’s board president from the school’s authorizer, the Charter Schools Office of Central Michigan University, the academy was informed that its contract — the legal charter to operate from which charter schools derive the name — would not be renewed. Justification for CMU’s decision was ample:

  • “deficit operating fund balances for six consecutive years . . . [standing at] $605,086” at the close of the 2003 fiscal year;

  • “meetings [which] appear to have violated portions of the Open Meetings Act”; and

  • “a poorly implemented educational program.”

In addition to “these actions [which] demonstrate a consistent pattern of the Academy Board’s lack of governance and leadership . . .” was a finding by the Michigan Department of Education in February of 2004 that the Academy spent $135,443 in federal monies on building repairs that were not part of the proposal that secured the grant. Amidst these — and a plethora of other problems — the CMU Charter School Office did what should be done with a chronically failing school: It cut off the flow of taxpayer dollars.

While Jim Goenner, Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office at CMU, says the decision to close the school was “heartbreaking,” he regards CMU’s decision as “a victory for the charter school movement because it fulfills the promise.” The promise that Goenner refers to is that charter schools were created with the idea that “performance will be rewarded and poor performance will be sanctioned.” The ultimate sanction is to prevent the school from receiving public funds, which Goenner states simply as “accountability in action.”

Many conventional public schools across the state produce equally dismal performances, but the sanction of closure appears to be nowhere imminent. The Detroit public school district, for example, is practically legendary for its inability to account for money. And despite “well above-average operating expenditures” of $9,532 per student (according to Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services), the district had a 30 percent passing rate on the 2002 MEAP test and a graduation rate of 69 percent. Modest improvements fostered by the reform-minded CEO, Kenneth Burnley, are often stymied by the unions and their political allies, and Burnley himself is the target of their ceaseless, aggravating efforts to thwart further change.

Whenever the possibility of competition arises, the teachers unions and their political allies can usually be counted on to oppose it at every turn. That happened most tragically just last fall in Detroit, when a $200 million offer from a private philanthropist to open 15 charter high schools was nixed at the expense of the many inner city parents and students who thirst for such options. Raise the specter of more charter school options, and the usual suspects faithfully show up to block the schoolhouse door. With their own selfish interests a priority, they declare that “charter schools aren’t accountable,” even though no parents are compelled to send their children to them, and as the closure of the Walter French Academy illustrates, a bad one doesn’t have an entitlement to eternity.

Should public schools that spend a fortune as they fail to teach be allowed to continue, extracting more and more tax dollars year after year? Under the current arrangement, the answer depends on which public schools are in question. For Walter French Academy and other charter school closures which preceded it, the answer is no. If the schools are failing but are conventional public schools, the answer is yes. The question citizens should be contemplating is, When will conventional public schools ever be as accountable as charter schools?

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Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.


After Central Michigan University revoked the charter of Walter French Academy, it was forced to close. This action illustrates a commitment to reform that could also improve conventional public schools.

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